Recently, marketers have been sharing some tough stories with me about their past customer advisory board (CAB) experiences. Here are a few and the lessons to be learned.
Myth 1: We should only invite friendly customers
We held our first CAB last September. We invited only the friendliest of customers and avoided any topic that might be controversial. We learned absolutely nothing.
A marketer shared this with me the other day. It’s a sad commentary, but a common one. It’s based on the myth that you should only invite friendly customers and limit the conversation. It’s human nature to want everyone to like you. And it’s human nature to always want to be perceived in a position of leadership and confidence. However, being a good leader also requires you to be a good listener, and that’s where the power of the CAB can help.
When hosting a CAB meeting, it is very important to build the meeting around a specific CAB objective you want to achieve. Then, in order to meet that objective, you need to invite those individuals from those specific companies who can best answer your questions and provide meaningful input you will find relevant and helpful. Nowhere in this directive does it say you need only invite friendly customers. Fact of the matter is you can learn a lot more from customer leaders who have a different perspective or who are not afraid to challenge you and your team.
Myth 2: We can only invite people we already know
We want to hold a CAB, but we don’t yet have the relationships we want with the right customer leaders. Until we have them, we have to limit our CAB participants to people that we know: users and their first-line managers.
Those quote, too, is a common tale of woe that is a fallacy. While it is always easy to extend an invitation to people we know, the CAB is the most perfect reason to invite an executive you don’t know. The secret is knowing how to extend the invitation.
The concept of the CAB is one of building a small intimate group of peer industry executive decision makers who share common challenges. The value is in the networking and providing an opportunity for these leaders to have a strategic conversation together — a strategic conversation made possible by your company. If you design the CAB to focus on the trends, drivers and priorities shaping the industry (and how you can help these customers achieve their business goals), you will not have any trouble filling your CAB seats.
The obvious outcome as you might infer in the above quote, is that the company ended up producing another common user group. The discussions were limited to product updates and, dare I say, “death by Powerpoint” presentations. That is not to say that user groups are not valuable. Indeed they are. However, a CAB disguised as a user group because you were timid in inviting the right executive participants is a common missed opportunity. Not only that, what do you think will happen when you do establish the executive relationships and then invite them to your next meeting? Chances are they will either decline or delegate their attendance because they perceive your meeting as a user group. You need to break the cycle before it begins.
Myth 3: We already know everything we need to know
We have already built our roadmap, and we have a very good feel for where we need to go. I seriously doubt our customers could tell us anything of value.
While there is some truth in that no customers will ever be able to tell you where you should invest or who you should partner with, this type of thinking is very dangerous. It’s dangerous because it suggests an attitude of superiority and “we know better than you” thinking. And so, this company decided not to hold a CAB.
Interestingly, at the same time, the company’s marketing research department and customer support organization were getting a huge amount of negative feedback from customers. In fact, there was a direct correlation that as the company gained a larger marketshare, the number of customer complaints steadily increased. Turns out customer needs and wants are evolving. Recent complaints included customers feeling the company had become “out of touch” and “uncaring about the problem I am trying to solve.” These warning signs suggest there is still a lot to be learned.
CABs have become a common tool in today’s customer-company relationship model. If you find yourself wrestling with any of these myths, let me know. I have other tools and best practices you may find of interest.